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Crisis of liberal secularism and Je suis Charlie

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As much as ‘radical Islam’ is generally blamed for the present grip of ‘terrorphobia’ on the world, the failure of core Western value systems has to declare mea culpa.

For the Western community at large to just blame Islam, or the raging battle for that religion’s soul, for the terror recently experienced in France or Boko Haram’s atrocities in Nigeria, would be a dangerous over-simplification. Fact is that the world is in the grip of wide-ranging transitions and such transitions are always immensely complicated affairs.

In another article, analysing developments in Islam, we point out how the threat of terror attacks and the development of Islamophobia in Europe and the Western world at large are putting serious pressure on the core values of liberal secularism.

To understand how liberal secularism and its associated economic systems – be it capitalism, socialism in all its variants or the ‘welfare state’ – are turning all of us into Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”), consider the following facts:

• The two Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, grew up in secular France in a ghetto in Paris, largely isolated from the traditional French way of life – a pattern that keeps repeating itself in terror incidents;

• Similarly, some the planners and executioners of the 9/11 attacks in the US grew up in a Western environment and the attacks were at least partly planned in Germany; and

• Europe’s appetite for cheap labour has not only led to large-scale immigration of people from the Islamic world, but also to what George Friedman calls the “ghettoization” of large migrant communities.

Friedman argues that it is a universal problem of secularism, which eschews stereotyping, that it leaves it unclear as to who is to be held responsible for what.

By devolving all responsibility on the individual, secularism tends to absolve nations and religions from responsibility, which is not necessarily wrong, but a tremendous practical problem: It might be a morally defensible judgment but “you … paralyzed your ability to defend yourselves”.

As reported elsewhere, by not having an alternative ‘system’, ideology or set of values in place, we as a society run the risk of losing hard-fought and early paid-for-in-blood freedoms to governments and their ‘securocrats’ as we are overrun by fears for our physical safety.

Liberal capitalism

In his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published last year, Thomas Piketty, described how capitalism threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. He suggested that traditional liberal government policies on spending, taxation and regulation will fail to diminish these extreme inequalities.

In October last year the conservative and authoritative German magazine Der Spiegel published an article by its editor, Michael Sauga, under the telling headline “The Zombie System: How Capitalism Has Gone Off the Rails”.

“Today, no one talks anymore about the beneficial effects of (an) unimpeded capital movement. Today's issue is ‘secular stagnation’, as former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers puts it,” Sauga wrote at the time.

Reporting on the Sauga book last year we posed the question: “Has capitalism as the standard superstructure of the economy globally run its course and is it living its final days before becoming part of history?”

In conclusion

In an article for the Daily Maverick last week Eric Davis wrote that one of the sets of variables missing from discussions or terrorist violence “is the collapse of secular ideologies. Increasingly Western liberalism is associated with rising levels of inequality, declining social services and lack of sensitivity to cultural differences.”

Despite abhorring what happened at Charlie Hebdo, it is that “lack of sensitivity to cultural differences” that won’t see me wearing a “Je suis Charlie” T-shirt. But the turmoil of a world in transition has turned me and most of humankind into Je suis Charlies, whether we like it or not.

Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, published in 2013, is an attempt to get us thinking about what a future dispensation should look like.

For me as a cynical old journalist, Eisenstein is a bit woolly and lacks in concreteness. But it is a start and some harder thinking is needed, because think, we need to think, I think.

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by Piet Coetzer

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